Liz’s booksblog: books I have enjoyed or read recently

2010 at 13:17 by Liz Hodgkinson

Lynn Barber: An Education. The book of the film of the book; vastly expanded version of Lynn's original memoir. It tells not only how she fell for a conman aged 16 but of her marriage, career and husband's ghastly death. Lynn's story is particularly interesting to me because I am exactly the same age and like her, I came from a very ordinary background, went to university and had an exciting, if nerveracking, career as a journalist and author. But as this book proves, we are all very different creatures, even when we have so much in common. Lynn's parents encouraged her to get an education and go to Oxford; mine didn't. They would have been happy enough for me to leave school at 16 and train as a secretary. They had no idea of higher education or careers. Nor was I picked up by a conman and nor did I remain happily married to the same man all my life. Nor did I go to Oxford. Well, I'm here now but only as an older person. It was considered actually impossible for a girl to get to Oxbridge from my coed grammar school, although some boys got there. Because it was thought a total impossibility, we didn't even try. Just shows how we limited our aspirations and I'm sure this would not have happened at a girls' school. No girl from my home town had ever become a Fleet Street journalist, either. Again, this was way out of our orbit.

But now, Lynn and I are both in our 60s and we can look back, on the good and the bad and what we achieved in spite of everything. As one might expect from a seasoned journalist, this book is an easy, light read even where Lynn deals with her husband's last fatal illness and the possibility that, in spite of the outwardly happy marriage, he probably had affairs. He was in many ways the junior partner, never achieving Lynn's celebrity and I wonder what he would have made of the film? Well, the story turned into a fantastic film and Lynn says it has sold to practically every country in the world, as it deserves to.

Christopher Hitchins: Hitch 22. The memoirs of a highlu intelligent, sensitive but essentially angry man. But God! he can write! In the book he talks about writing having a 'gold standard' and he has that gold standard. The book is full of literary allusions and concise encapsulations of wars. It is perceptive, insightful and amusing. Hitchens' background is interesting, too. He is the son of a military man who was forced to earn a living as a school bursar -- odd, but many ex-military men ended up as scholl bursars: I wonder why? His mother Yvonne tried all her life to suppress her Jewish heritage and be glamorous, successful and noticed. She ended up committing suicide in Greece with her lover and was a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for whom Hitchens has, as one would expect, very little time. Now Hitch has terminal cancer and that may be making him even angrier but he is certainly a highly talented writer and I liked this one better than his previous work, God is not Great.

EM Forster: Howards End. It was years since I had read this famous novel and because the content is so well known and has passed into folklore, almost, I wondered whether I could come at it afresh. And no, I couldn't, not completely, as the book has been so picked over by critics and commentators over the years, it is almost impossible to know what one thinks of it. However, I will try. FR Leavis thought the novel had too many ridiculous coincidences and unbelievable incidents, such as Mrs Wilcox leaving Margaret Howards End, Margaret marrying the widower Mr Wilcox and Mr Wilcox himself having an affair with Jacky, the much-used older wife of clerk Leonard Bast. To a modern reader, they are hard to take although as we also know, truth is stranger than fiction and more extraordinary coincidences happen in real life than are ever dreamed up in fiction. But as Howards End is also a work of genius, there are insights and apercus which still ring true today, such as the power of money or the lack of it, to affect character and behaviour and the relevance of the famous phrase 'only connect' which, today, would probably be called empathy. Because Leonard Bast is only a low-down clerk, Mr Wilcox not only cannot connect with him, but is not remotely interested. Therefore, he will cheerfully see Bast lose his job and fall into the abyss. Margaret and Helen Shlegel cannot understand this attitude but then, they have always been protected by a private income (as Forster himself was) and have never had to soil their hands or their minds by following a profession or trying to earn a living. There are echoes here of the concerns of other novelists of the time, such as HG Wells and Galsworthy, who also wrote about money. In the days before the welfare state, these concerns became acute but they are less relevant today. Howards End rightly deserves its place as a classic work of fiction and is much more than a period piece, with lively, interesting characters who react strongly with each other. Their differing perspectives form the basis of the novel but it's hard, as Forster admits, to know who is right or what to do for the best. Nobody in this novel is perfect. For modern readers, the magisterial, authorial tone might seem a bit much, the novelist coming down from a great height and pronouncing, but the characters are far more than just mouthpieces of the author but are people the reader can care about.

Sue Gee: the Mysteries of Glass. It is 1860 and Richard Allan, a nervous young curate, arrives in the dead of winter, to a lonely cottage to take up his duties. He means well but from the first does not meet with wholehearted approval. His first sermon does not go down well with everybody, and several people become suspicious of the newcomer. As winter gives way to spring, his life opens out, but with disastrous consequences. He falls passionately in love with the young wife of the vicar although he tries his best to keep it a total secret. The vicar is much older than his wife and becomes very ill, with no hope of recovery. The wife, Susannah, has to suppress the wicked thought that he might die, and then she and Richard, the curate, might be together. But it does not work out like that. Several people suspect the totally unconsummated love affair and eventually Richard is hauled up before the parish council to explain himself. It all looks hopeless, yet from somewhere Richard finds the courage to accuse his accusers. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone .. This is Sue Gee at the height of her powers; she has entered into the mindset of the mid-Victorians, especially as Darwinism is making headway, and Richard finds he has to tread a careful path between popery, Methodism, the wickedness of the evolutionary theory, and also the wickedness of loving another man's wife. He longs to be a married man, to have children but at the end of the novel this looks as far away as ever. However, there is hope for the future. A wonderful novel to read by the fireside on a winter's evening and reflect on how dramatically attitudes have changed since those days.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go. A true masterpiece, a novel which starts off quite slowly but before the end of the first page we realise something is not right, something is not as it should be. It's the story of three people who are not really people at all, but manufactured clones who are bred purely for their vital organs. They will die 'donating' these organs to cure or treat other 'real' people. As children, these three friends are at a country boarding school; however, it doesn't take long before we realise this is no ordinary boarding school. For one thing the pupils - known as 'students' - never go home and for another, they never have any parents. As these children grow up, they exhibit very similar emotions to real people. They can feel love, desire, jealousy and anguish but they know from a young age that they will never have jobs or careers, they will never marry or have children and they will die quite young. They all seem to accept their fate in life. In this scientific programme, which is never made entirely clear, some of the clones will become donors at a young age while others are designated as carers, which will enable them to live slightly longer, although they will inevitably become donors in the end.

The novel has some Huxleyish Brave New World touches but is much less didactic and the reader only gradually realises that a nightmare world is being unfolded. The flat, almost childlike and understated style of the writing is deliberate as it is a first-person narrative, told through the eyes of Kathy, one of the clones. Chilling, subtle and gaining force as it proceeds, this is a truly original and disturbing work. Ishiguro, unlike Huxley, does not go into details of how the clones are cloned or even how their vital organs are extracted so that they can live to proceed to a third, or even fourth, donation. Nobody recovers from the fourth donation, after which they are said to have 'completed' - or died. But when they are alive, how far are they actual humans, with as much individuality as anybody else? This is the enigma which interests the author, rather than the scientific means by which these clones are created. Nor do we ever meet those who are responsible for perpetrating these freaks of nature. Much is left unsaid or unexplained -- deliberately, one feels.

Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read this book at one (very long) sitting so it must be a page-turner. Like millions of other readers all over the world, I couldn't put it down but after I had finished it left me feeling slightly queasy. Although brilliantly plotted and very clever, the sex, violence and sadism was just too much. How can one sit down and write that stuff? Some of the descriptions of women reminded me rather of Harold Robbins - not just male fantasy but intended to titillate while masquerading as feminism and a rallying cry against sexual abuse of women. I know that Lisbeth gets her own back later but there was so much casual sex -- everybody fancies the hero, it seems - which was, to my mind, completely unneccessary. I liked the analysis of financial journalism today, and why so few scams and scandals are ever reported (maybe Wikileaks will change all that) and also the way the Millenium magazine struggles to keep going. All those rang very true but the women were male fantasy stereotypes - even the publisher of the magazine, who is married but has a convenient sexual arrangement with the hero. Yes I suppose all men would like to be so fatally attractive to women. But it was certainly hard, no, impossible, to put down while I was actually reading it.

Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question,

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker prize and as such, gathering many plaudits, this book is about being Jewish, and is the tale of three men who interract at points during the narrative. Everything is subjected to the 'Finkler': what would Finkler, or what would a very intelligent, Jewish man, do under such circumstances? As one might expect from Jacobson, the book is very clever, very funny but somehow, I seem to have read it all before. While the men are different from each other, the women are identical -- or, at least, they speak an identical dialogue - terse, witty, putting down the men in their one-liners. The only real difference is that one of the women, Hephzibah, is curvaceous while the others are skinny. But her speech is identical. Jacobson takes some potshots at the BBC (The BBC Atrocities Museum) and the novel has some in-depth analysis of the Israel/Palestine situation, especially through the meetings of the ASHamed Jews at the Groucho Club. Enjoyable, dark and funny at the same time -- although I must say that while I appreciated the humour, I read it with a completely straight face and did not laugh once - I seem to have heard all the jokes and read most of the dialogue, before. A distinct feeling of deja vu. It's very much a man's novel, and the Finkler book titles- Dating with Descartes, and suchlike, are so much in the male comic novel tradition, that I did not really feel I was getting anything new out of it. But have to admire Jacobson's cleverness and hold on plot and situation.

John Mole: I was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and travails in the new Russia.  An account of funny foreigners in the Peter Mayle, Bill Bryson tradition. In my view, Mole is funnier than either, but that might be because he has more painfully entertaining material, and Russians make better comic copy than either the French or the English. Mole relates how he tried to set up a jacket potato franchise in a Russia just emerging from communism into a free market.  He is a genuinely funny writer with a sure ear and eye for dialogue and character, and this tale of an innocent abroad in a country just starting to struggle with an enterprise culture, keeps up its entertaining momentum throughout the book.   Mole is a clever writer who deserves to be better known.




Claire Tomalin: Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. superlative biography, highly professional, sheds a lot of new light on the author of Tess and Jude, etc. Hardy was a fabulously successful author in his lifetime, able to create unforgettable characters who have now woven themselves into the fabric of literature so that in many ways, like Dickens’ characters, they seem to be real people.  Hardy was less successful in his relationships with women and his long childless marriage to the boring Emma – who herself had aspirations to be a writer – is well described.  One feels for Emma, the ‘tragic literary spouse’ as she had nothing whatever to do apart from go on holidays with her increasingly rich and famous husband.  Yet, thanks to him, she has her footnote in history. Tomalin has read and uncovered absolutely everything about Hardy, yet the biography is easy to read and zips along. Tomalin is an excellent writer as well as an industrious researcher and perceptive commentator, and  after reading this biography, you will come to Hardy with new insights and understanding.


Colin Dexter: The Secret of Annexe 3: An Inspector Morse Mystery. Dexter is just so clever, you almost can’t see how he’s done it.  For me, the Morse books have an added thrill now that I’m living in North Oxford, where so many of the stories are set. The Morse books are thoroughly satisfying mysteries with sly little observations thrown in and as an added bonus for me, no explicit violence.  There is also much more sex, both overt and hinted at, than one might expect.



Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor: Wonderful Today The autobiography.   Pattie Boyd was married firstly to Beatle George Harrison and then to Eric Clapton and inspired the enduring songs Layla and Wonderful Tonight.  So she must be something special, right? Pattie, the eldest of six children, was born in Kenya and left school with only three O levels but a stunning face and figure. She soon became a top model and it’s perhaps hard for people today to remember just how famous Pattie was and how many magazine covers she adorned. As she tells it, though, it’s simply no fun being married to a world-famous rock star and I’m sure she’s right. There is fame, even if at second hand, and money of course but these are a high price to pay for the neglect, infidelities, temper, drugs, alcoholic binges and sheer narcissism that go with such a marriage.

This book is a quick, easy read, a valuable addition to rock memoirs for its inside information on that world and although I’m sure the highly professional Penny Junor has extricated all the drama and pathos possible, the general impression is of an airhead, arm candy, the ultimate rock chick.  Pattie was – and remains – phenomenally attractive-looking but her main claim to fame is as an adornment, rather than an analytical commentator on the rock scene.  For a more perceptive appraisal of The Beatles, read Philip Norman’s books.


Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand, ed: The Honeymoon’s Over. A collection of personal essays on marriage and divorce by some of America’s leading women writers. In almost every case, these intelligent, educated, articulate and talented women married completely the wrong man and the result was divorce, usually after two or three children had been born.  But why did they marry these men in the first place? Some wanted to be married, to be a bride, some wanted children, some got sucked into relationships and felt they could not get out, some felt sorry for the men, others felt proud to be chosen.  This book takes an honest, disturbing look at modern relationships and makes you realise why religious and fundamentalist men don’t want their women to be educated: if they can’t read or write, have no money or job, marry at 14 and have dozens of children, they are less  likely to complain or write about the deficiencies of the men in their lives. 



Ray Monk: Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness. An impressive, tremendously detailed biography of the man who was a household name in my childhood. I remember sitting down with Russell, then aged about 90, outside the Ministry of Defence on a famous ban-the-bomb march. In his old age, Russell became the darling of the young intelligentsia for his outspoken and iconoclastic views on marriage, morality, education and religion.  His book Why I am Not a Christian seemed dangerously subversive at the time. However, this biography depicts a man who, while blessed with more than his fair share of intellectual intelligence, hardly possessed any emotional intelligence at all. He made four daft marriages; or, at least, three daft marriages and one old-age marriage which seemed to work.  His eldest son John spent much of his life in psychiatric institutions, his granddaughter Lucy committed suicide by setting herself alight at the age of 26 and after his divorces, Russell coldly shunned his three ex-wives. 

Russell lived almost entirely in his head and was somebody who, really, should never have married or had children, but lived a bachelor life in an Oxbridge college. He seemed to be peculiarly disastrous at relationships, and inflicted much misery on his supposed nearest and dearest.


Harold Evans: My Paper Chase This is a big book but somehow I had read it all before or at least,  the content seemed highly familiar: the train-driver father, the working-class background, the start in provincial journalism, the rise to editor of The Sunday Times in its heyday and the many campaigns the paper instigated, (cue retelling for the 1000th time, of the thalidomide story) and the love affair with Tina Brown, as he pursued her on his motorbike.   Hasn’t it all been written about before in his Good Times, Bad Times?  Not so enjoyable or jolly as the Hugh Cudlipp books, Publish and Be Damned and Walking on the Water.  Harry Evans and Hugh Cudlipp are possibly the most famous newspaper editors of all time and have both passed into legend although Evans is still alive. They were both lucky enough to be at the helm in the glory days of newspapers.   



Lisa St Aubin de Teran: Memory Maps. This book, by a professional exotic, revisits her by now all too familiar territory – the hacienda in South America, the derelict palace in Umbria, the three marriages, the children, the writing, the almost-made films, the illnesses, the worldwide wanderings.  Not quite sure who might be interested. It seems that the author has almost total, detailed recall of events from her earliest childhood and I wondered where memoir strayed into fiction. For me, there were just too many locations in the book, from Russia to Luxemburg to Venice to Venezuela to Nevis to Wimbledon, Norfolk and Clapham South – I found myself losing track and not really caring.  Also, the tone is of somebody mighty pleased with themselves.



William Boyd: Any Human Heart.  William Boyd is one of our most accomplished, assured, versatile and reliable novelists. When we open a William Boyd book, we know we are in for a good, reasonably easy read. This book is written in the form of a diary, starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1980s. It is the story of Logan Mountstuart, educated at public school and Oxford and who enjoys early success as a writer both of fiction and non-fiction. The action of the novel moves between France, New York, Africa and London and takes in many real people, such as Ian Fleming, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh. Mountstuart has an active and adventurous life with many triumphs and disasters and this includes a considerable amount of  sexual adventures.  For me, the main interest of the book was in how a man sees women, sexually and otherwise, and in the attempts made to depict the women as real, rounded characters rather than just there for sexual gratification or male fantasy.  It has clearly been written to appeal to women as much as men.

The book is written in a plain style which I appreciate, without any purple patches or self-conscious ‘writerly’ touches – and is all the better for that. Perhaps it is ever so slightly painting by numbers in parts, but it never descends into cliche and there are some surprising twists and turns.  Mountstuart’s old age and end is not what one would expect. Along the way there are a few ‘in’ touches about writers, agents, publishers, royalties and sales which I, as a writer myself, enjoyed. But for other readers, they would hardly intrude.



Sebastian Faulks: A Week in December. Hugely enjoyable, very accomplished novel about the  banking crisis, and an accurate analysis (as it seems) of the banker and hedge fund manager mindset. Faulks has taken pains to understand and explain highly complicated financial vehicles which even most bankers can’t understand, so here is evidence of a fine, creative mind at work. There is a lot of humour, a rich cast of characters and although some of the plot devices may be slightly clunky – well, you can’t have everything and anybody who wants to understand how the banking crisis happened should read this book, rather than a dry account by a non-writer.  It slightly echoes Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities except that this one is about real events. 

NB: there was a negative review of this book in the Guardian Review Section, Sat Sept 4, 2010, but I found the book witty, intelligent and informative, tackling some difficult subjects for a novelist.


Alison Weir: Katherine Swynford. Very detailed, scholarly biography of the mistress, later wife, of  John of Gaunt and as such, an interesting and important historical figure. Weir has dug up an astonishing amount of detail and the book is very readable by the layperson but maybe there is a bit too much research for the ordinary reader to take in. I must say that on balance I prefer the Anya Seton historical novel about the same person even though it is, as Weir points out, very much of its time and evokes the moral code of the 1950s rather than that of the 14th century.  When I first read Katherine by Anya Seton, I simply couldn’t put it down. This one though, I could.



Jack Higgins: Midnight Runner. Amazingly, this was the first Jack Higgins I had ever read and now I know why.  It’s very clever, very slick, incredibly fast-paced but extremely violent – far too violent for me. It was, I must say, completely unputdownable, being written in short paragraphs with lots of dialogue but the characters were too nasty and there were too many cold-blooded killers who despatch people with no ceremony, no feeling and no remorse, for the thriller to have any real appeal. I’m sure Higgins has thoroughly done his research but in the end I wondered what I was doing reading about all these horrible people.



Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence.  Chatty, intimate,  intelligent and clever, richly woven, totally honest, literary, literate, a joy to read. Cannot praise it highly enough. The book takes the reader into another world; that of living alone and, for most of the time, in silence. It is not maybe an experience that all would wish to undergo but as all the great spiritual traditions understand, it is important to be able to go into silence to understand oneself, one’s motives, strengths and weaknesses.  An unusual experience distilled into a masterpiece of a book. 


Sophie Hannah: the other half lives. A highly involved, intricate thriller, extremely well researched and with many twists and turns, but in places very violent indeed.  Contemporary, with all the up to date references – google, Amazon, etc -  Hannah keeps all, or most of the balls in the air until the final denouement but I, at least, could see it coming from some way off. Some of the violent scenes made me feel queasy and one wondered what these people had done to deserve this kind of ill-treatment?  Plus, it was slightly too intricate for my taste – I kept forgetting who all the people were and how they connected with each other.  They should have had more memorable names, as in Dickens. 


John Sergeant: Give Me Ten Seconds. The autobiography of the former television political correspondent and now, all-round entertainer. Sergeant is a quick-witted, clever man, a natural performer, engaging personality and entertainer but not, on this evidence at least, a natural writer. A salutary reminder that real writing takes endless hard slog and effort and – mainly, daily practice. You can’t just come at it once in a while.  However, there are some interesting insights into politics of the 1980s and 90s.


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